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Even with 236 million shots already administered, the air cargo industry is yet to see the huge volumes of Covid-19 vaccines. While challenges still persist in terms of operations, capacity and sensitivity, experts report that the industry is better prepared and the awareness campaigns were successful.

As we are close to the first anniversary of Covid-19 induced worldwide lockdowns, we still listen to the news of new lockdowns and strict requirements for travelling due to the re-emergence of Covid-19 pandemic in many places around the world.  Vaccinating the majority of human beings is the only permanent solution available for countries to go back to a normal life. With more than a dozen vaccines available across the globe for public use, it is the job of the logistics players and cold chain solution providers to move them and make them available for the entire humanity.

Vaccines are nothing new for the air cargo industry. They have been transporting temperature-controlled vaccines for many years now and have also become the preferred mode of transport due to their sensitive nature and high value. However, the challenge is in handling the sheer volume of Covid-19 vaccines coupled with the limited airfreight capacity and the prioritisation for vaccines agreed by many airlines. The management of different vaccine candidates with different requirements including the limitation to use dry ice in aircraft is the next level of challenge.

Rob Walpole, vice president, Delta Cargo, said, “It is important to note that this is not new, Delta and many airlines have extensive experience shipping vaccines.  Certainly, the logistical challenge of the sheer scale/volume of the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine around the globe as well as the stakeholder complexity requires our teams to be nimble and flexible. This is also made more challenging as the different vaccines have different requirements for transportation with Pfizer vaccines being outside of normal temp range with their own packaging.”

Nevertheless, the industry experts report that the awareness campaign and last year experience of emergency handling of PPE kits have better prepared the global air freight stakeholders to manage the incoming mission. Against all the odds, the industry has shown its commitment to help supply chain partners and governments to move Covid-19 vaccines. And the message from the air cargo industry is clear: let's do whatever it takes to end this pandemic.

Huge vaccine volumes are yet to come

According to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker, the world has already taken 236 million shots of Covid-19 vaccine doses in 103 countries till February 28, 2021. However, humanity and the global air cargo industry is yet to see large scale movements of these vaccines because first: the world needs to vaccinate at least 70 percent of its 7.8 billion population, second: major airlines alone wants to move 2 billion doses in 2021, third: the distribution is still concentrated in regional routes, fourth: many new vaccines are getting approved and fifth: vaccines manufactures are ramping up their capacity.

Andrea Gruber, head, special cargo, IATA, said, “The industry has not yet reached the large scale of volumes and global distribution we expected. This is due to only a limited number of vaccines being approved for full use and manufacturers experiencing some delays in production. Manufacturers are starting to scale-up their capacity as countries around the globe and international organizations have been ordering and pre-purchasing different type of vaccines, which will be transported following approval for use.”

“To assist further the global distribution of vaccines and provide transparency on the available cargo capacity and connectivity, together with UNICEF and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), IATA organised a virtual meeting with major global airlines on the expected capacity requirements and discussed ways to transport close to 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines in 2021,” she noted.

For instance, 16 international carriers agreed to the prioritisation of Covid-19 vaccines over other cargoes in Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) signed with the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which is acting on behalf of the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) facility which aims for equal distribution of Covid vaccines among world countries.  

In a joint response, Frank van Gelder, secretary-general of Pharma.Aero and Glyn Hughes, director general of The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA), informed, “So far the quantities transported internationally have been relatively small as the initial vaccines that received approvals had some fixed agreements in place to supply specific countries.  On top, the vaccine shipments, distribution sequences and deliveries are mainly driven by country-level policies of vaccination and buying. Looking at the current numbers, less than 2 percent of the entire global population have been vaccinated. With further candidate vaccines receiving regulatory health approvals for use, we can expect the scale of transport, distribution and ultimate vaccinations to accelerate dramatically during Q2/3 of 2021.”

Thomas Ellmann, vice president, life sciences & healthcare, DHL, said, “Logistics providers are establishing medical supply chains rapidly to deliver vaccines of an unprecedented amount of more than 10 billion doses worldwide – also in regions with less developed logistics infrastructures, where 3 billion people live. In order to provide global coverage for the next two years, up to 200,000 pallet shippers and 15 million cooling boxes as well as 15,000 flights will be required across the various different supply chain setups.”

Thorsten Braun, head of sales development at Lufthansa Cargo, noted, “We expect a significant increase in vaccine shipments from the second quarter onwards and with regard to more stable production capacities.”

Björn Siloo, senior vice president, Envirotainer, said, “Our current calculation (mid-February 2021) is that we have carried some 40,000,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines so far. By our estimates, we have shipped approximately 2/3’s of all vaccines shipments that require air freight. We expect these volumes to increase by several orders of magnitude over the coming year.”

Patrick Schafer, CEO of CSafe Global, said, “As far as how long it will take, that depends far more on the vaccine manufacturers and government health organizations. Based on what we hear from the vaccine manufacturers, the initial distribution could take multiple years.”

Marrie Groeneveld, chief commercial officer, SkyCell, said, “SkyCell is a partner in the Hope Consortium which is a UAE-based public-private partnership offering a unique end-to-end supply chain solution. With SkyCell’s help, the Hope Consortium will be capable of moving and storing up to 1.8 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021.”


Air freight uncompromised on Covid19 vaccine delivery
UNICEF delivering 324,000 doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine
to Cambodia on March 2. (Photo: UNICEF/Raab)

Geography of vaccine movement

The geographical movement of Covid-19 vaccines depends upon the location of vaccine manufacturing sites and the consuming countries. Vaccine manufactures are building new production sites as well as increasing the capacity of their existing facilities due to increasing demand.

For example, in early February, BioNTech announced the production commencement of Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine (Comirnaty) at a new vaccine factory with 750 million doses annual capacity in Marburg, north to Frankfurt, Germany. The first batch of 8 million doses is expected to ready by early April from here.

Ellmann said, “DHL Global Forwarding and DHL Express have served and are serving multiple lanes out of Europe and other places of origin for the transport of Covid-19 vaccines. For instance, DHL has been awarded vaccine transport from Europe to Israel, as well as numerous countries in Asia and South America. In addition, DHL Supply Chain is also responsible for the storage and local distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in certain federal states of Germany.”

Chris Allen, communications principal, FedEx, noted, “FedEx is currently shipping millions of Covid-19 vaccines to dosing centres across all 50 states of the United States, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C. Additionally, FedEx is working closely with the Canadian government and healthcare companies to ship Covid-19 vaccines rapidly and reliably to all 13 Canadian provinces and territories.”

Braun said, “We currently assume that Europe will be the largest intercontinental exporter. The routes to Africa and Asia will certainly be the most important export lanes from Europe. Nevertheless, developments of potential future production sites should be closely monitored as well.”

Limitations in moving dry ice

Since Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine has to be kept below -70 degree Celsius, the company use specially designed temperature-controlled thermal shippers utilizing dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) to maintain recommended storage temperature conditions for up to 10 days unopened. Dry ice is classified as among dangerous goods due to its tendency to sublimate as carbon dioxide in environment temperature.

In a recent interview given to The STAT Trade Times, Nabil Sultan, Emirates divisional senior vice president cargo discussed the constraints of moving vaccines that need dry ice. “The difficulty is that there are limitations in terms of how much dry ice you can actually carry per aircraft. For example, to move their passive packaging, Pfizer requires a certain amount of dry ice per package. The maximum you can put on a passenger flight is four to five pallets. On a freighter, you could take up to nine to ten pallets. Even though you have the cargo capacity, you will not have the capability to move larger volumes,” he said.

Gruber noted, “There is a requirement for an acceptance check for packages containing dangerous goods. The acceptance check requires that the operator, or their ground handling agent, verify the marks and labels on packages. Where there are significant numbers of packages of vaccines that contain dry ice, the time to accept the packages increases significantly. This needs to be factored in for the time required from delivery to the airport to flight departure.”

Gelder and Hughes said, “Carriers and their supply chain partners had identified the potential issues related to dry ice well in advance.  Following the various assessments and considering the sublimation rates associated with shipment packaging some carriers revised the quantities of dry ice that they will transport and have updated their operator safety materials accordingly.”

Ellmann informed, “We have upgraded our dry-ice capacity in regions with short supply and are able to replenish dry ice via our express division in certain markets. For frozen transport, dry ice allowances do limit batch size per aircraft but we are confident that the distribution of vaccines will not fail because of logistics.”

SkyCell recently announced the development of an ultra-cold container that is capable of transporting more doses of the Covid-19 vaccines, including those requiring a temperature range of -60 to -80 degree Celsius.

Groeneveld noted, “This is because the container uses significantly less dry ice than traditional ultra-cold solutions, making it a safer option. The reduction in required dry ice also makes it more efficient for air transport, enabling on average 1.75 million vials per single aircraft. Additionally, SkyCell recently launched the 1500F container, which is the fourth temperature range in its robust product suite covering all temperature ranges for pharmaceutical product transportation. The 1500F maximise aircraft capacity and will enable between two and three million vials to be transported in a single aircraft.”

Airfreight capacity

According to the numbers produced by IATA, the global air freight capacity in January 2021 fell 19.5 percent compared to January 2019 and five percent compared to December 2020. This comes when air cargo demand returned to pre-Covid levels for the first time since the pandemic. Even when the economies trying to get back on track, lack of belly capacity has left the air cargo community in troubles. This will also have a severe effect on the movement of Covid-19 vaccines.

Siloo of Envirotainer, noted, “One of the major challenges is that the demand for vaccines is so great and the ramp-up of Covid-19 vaccine production has been hit by predictable, but still challenging, setbacks such as production suddenly moving from one continent to another. A lot more doses than normal need to be shipped on far fewer than normal flights.”

“At Envirotainer we see two primary effects of this scenario:

– Airfreight costs will continue to be high as a larger proportion of the freights will have to rely on chartered freight planes rather than commercial passenger flights.

–Logistics channels will be filled to capacity at some point, causing delays. Vaccine shipments risk being stuck due to lack of transport capacity,” he added.

Hughes & Gelder stated, “Challenges with capacity will remain for most of 2021 as air cargo traditionally relied on bellies of passenger aircraft to move about 50 percent of cargo volumes and with so much of the passenger fleet remaining grounded alternative solutions will need to be found to serve markets normally relying upon passenger bellies for cargo transport. Capacity remains a challenge, so early booking and exact requirements will enable a more effective match between demand and available capacity.” 

Braun noted, “Something special is clearly the capacity available to us this and next year. Due to the loss of belly capacities, we have less available, because only about 20 percent of the passenger aircraft fly.”

United Airlines Cargo Spokesperson, informed, “The specific requirements are dependent on each vaccine’s specific requirements and needs. The Covid-19 pandemic has created an environment where carriers need to stay nimble and react quickly, and our operations and network teams continue to adjust and respond to customer demand quickly and efficiently.  We continue to explore different options across our widebody fleet to support vaccine movements.”

Delta Cargo implemented 24/7 Vaccine Watch Tower for centralised monitoring and
customer reporting of  Covid-19 vaccine shipments. (Photo: Delta Cargo) 

Communication & collaboration

With all the unique challenges and problems, moving Covid-19 vaccines would also require stakeholders across logistics has ensured early communication and collaboration. For example, FedEx and UPS, the two rival US logistics companies, are working together to move the Covid-19 vaccines in the United States under the Operation Wrap Speed, a public-private partnership initiated by the US government to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.

Siloo said, “Yes, in certain combinations and instances we are competitors, but no single party has the solution to the current challenges.”

About the awareness campaign for the logistics industry to be ready and prepared for the large scale of vaccine transport and distribution, Gruber said, “It has proven to be very constructive as the industry supply chain stakeholders have pro-actively taken the lead to organize themselves in identifying the needs. Airport communities have been established in and a number of task forces have been set up to ensure visibility and bring business partners together.”

She also added that IATA’s call for collaboration has resulted in positive developments between the private and public sector. “For example, the work carried out with the World Customs Organizations has resulted in airline members not encountering specific obstacles so far to current border processes for these critical shipments,” added Gruber.

For instance, Delta Cargo has established a vaccine watch tower to monitor the entire journey of Covid-19 vaccines with end-to-end visibility. 

Walpole said, “With 24/7 centralized monitoring and customer reporting, the tower works closely with flight operations to ensure the safe and secure transportation of the vaccines at the required temperature. The team follows each consignment from booking to delivery, proactively updating customers every step of the way. If there is a disruption during any part of the journey, the vaccine watch tower works across numerous divisions on a recovery plan to ensure the vaccines reach the final destination.”

“In order to cope with the upcoming wave of pharmaceutical transport, we consider it urgently necessary that all relevant federal and state authorities closely coordinate their activities with those involved in airfreight logistics at an early stage to ensure the best possible preparation of special processes and on special issues,” said, Braun. “Especially in exceptional situations, reliable framework conditions worldwide are valuable for efficient and reliable logistics. Furthermore, we call for a harmonized approach at the EU level in terms of security requirements,” he added.

Regulatory solutions

Regulations still remain a concern for the air cargo industry as often these hurdles come in the way of smooth Covid-19 vaccine movement. However, the involvement of governments in the distribution has to a great extend prevented it from impacting the logistics. Logistics associations, governments and regulatory authorities have to work together to make transportation hassle-free.  

Gruber noted “The work that IATA is carrying out with the regulators is allowing the existing requirements to be revised, for example, packages containing Covid-19 vaccines accompanied by data loggers and/or cargo tracking devices containing lithium batteries are not subject to the marking and documentation requirements listed in the dangerous goods regulations, as applicable. Some governments and authorities have been lacking preparedness in organizing the vaccine distribution nationally, which slows down the vaccination program.”

Gelder and Hughes said, “Regulatory liaison and inclusion is vital.  Charter operations often need several agencies to authorize.  Customs need to be prepared for efficient and timely processing and where health and transport agencies both need to approve the shipment is crucial they work collaboratively with the supply chain. We learned that we probably face the biggest logistics challenge of the past 70 years.”

Infrastructure upgrade

Vaccines are of high value, extremely sensitive, and temperature-controlled items, which means that preparation and planning are key. It requires a highly coordinated approach, backed by trained people and certified infrastructure. This includes intimate knowledge of the minute details such as packaging, storing, air and land routing, timing, carrier selection, specific handling requirements etc.

Ellmann of DHL, informed, “Where appropriate, we invested in additional infrastructure incl. ultra-low-freezers to safely and securely store and handle vaccines. We looked at the right packaging material, data loggers etc. We have also expanded our staff training and trained additional employees in storing and handling ultra-low-temperature shipments. 

Walpole of Delta Cargo, said, “With large warehouses and cooler facilities in Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York-JFK and Seattle, plus pharma facilities at 75 other domestic airports and a network of 49 certified pharma airports across the globe, Delta has the necessary infrastructure in place to support Covid-19 vaccine shipments.”

Braun of Lufthansa Cargo informed, “Establishing our own task force very early, monitoring all developments closely as well as adjusting our network and freighter capacities helped us a lot preparing for the transports to come. Additionally, Lufthansa Cargo had already invested heavily in the necessary ground infrastructure before the pandemic and is very well prepared with its pharmaceutical hubs in Frankfurt, Munich, Shanghai and Chicago as well as around 30 CEIV-Pharma certified stations worldwide, one of the world's largest airline pharmaceutical networks.”

United Cargo spokesperson, wrote, “We are proud to have flown approximately 10 million doses so far and are more committed than ever to providing reliable air cargo options for critical shipments.  Since the end of December, United Cargo has completed several vaccine-transport missions. This means innovating, creating and providing comprehensive solutions like expanding our temperature-controlled and cold storage capabilities and having a dedicated team of experts to handle vaccine shipments and customer inquiries.”

Future of container solutions

Temperature controlled pharmaceutical container providers will have a definite role to play not only in ensuring the stability of vaccines but also in coming out new innovations and solutions to efficiently streamline the air cargo and other logistics operations. 

Ellmann, said, “With the further development (or availability of additional stability data) of Covid-19 vaccines that can be transported at temperatures of -20 (-25) degrees or even at 2-8 degrees, transport and storage will become a little easier but it remains a sophisticated and highly-sensitive operation as specific requirements still need to be adhered to. At -25 (-20) degrees, dry-ice boxes would no longer be necessary - there are two options for air freight: active cooling through reefer containers and passive cooling through so-called phase change material, i.e. gel packs that keep the temperature at -25 degrees. The material is not considered a dangerous good so capacity in aircraft also increases.”

Groeneveld of SkyCell, noted, “Containers should be designed with disruption in mind - meaning they are able to withstand temperature fluctuations, lack of charging ports or incorrect storage facilities, and they should also be made in a safe, secure and suitable manner. The pharmaceutical supply chain needs to move to a more efficient and sustainable model. This can be through long-term packaging solutions which can be reused and are designed with innovative and thoroughly researched materials. Additionally, there should also be greater data flow integration which will ensure the end-to-end efficiency of the supply chain. This can be achieved through the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, for example, that track, monitor, and alert pharmaceutical shipment companies of any potential issues along the way.”

Schafer of CSafe Global, said, “When people know the decisions they make, the products they build and service they provide are saving and improving lives every day, the thought process is different. It’s no longer ‘Let’s see if this is possible’. But rather, ‘How can we make this possible?’ That is the mindset of every CSafe employee. Whether it means designing a new container, finding a new route to deliver a container on time, chartering an Antonov to bring a portion of the fleet back to a CSafe facility or working with customers on fees – our entire team is on board and empowered to do what is best for the customer and ultimately the patient.”


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